Every Christmas Eve as I was growing up, my dad would open our large brown book of stories and poems and read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas to my siblings and me as we munched on Christmas cookies and stared at the Christmas tree. Visions of sugar plums were not dancing in our heads because we didn’t know what they were, but plenty of visions of Santa Claus’s imminent visit went through our heads. Hearing my dad read the poem seemed to seal the deal for another successful Christmas drop of toys and gifts, as specified in our letters to Santa. We just knew he would come! Christmas Eve was always a very warm-fuzzy, cozy, jolly time as anticipation and excitement mounted.
How drastically different Christmas Eve was for Mary and Joseph. There was nothing warm-fuzzy, cozy, or jolly about the 90-mile trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem, where Joseph was required to register his family. It was a dangerous journey, and Mary was nine months pregnant. James F. Strange, a New Testament and biblical archeology professor at the University of South Florida writes, we have no idea how difficult it was… They had to travel 90 miles to the city of Joseph’s ancestors: south along the flatlands of the Jordan River, then west over the hills surrounding Jerusalem, and on into Bethlehem. It was a fairly grueling trip (A Long Cold Road to Bethlehem, 12/23/95).
Most people making the trip traveled 20 miles per day; Mary and Joseph probably kept it at 10 miles because of her condition. I’m remembering the not-so-pleasant ride to the hospital where I delivered my children. It was in a car, on a smoothly paved highway, well-lit by street lights, and protected by state troopers. In sharp contrast, a very pregnant, ready-to-pop Mary rode on a donkey up and down hills, in the dark of night, across the Judean desert in winter, where daytime temperatures were in the 30’s, and night temperatures, freezing. Add rain to that forecast, and the heavy woolen cloaks they probably wore to cover their long robes were the only protection from the elements. Dr. Strange notes that they likely wore a type of tube socks with enclosed shoes. Definitely not Patagonia, North Face, REI, Columbia, or LL Bean. Definitely not insulated hiking boots, and you can be sure Mary did not own maternity cold weather thermal pants!
The elements alone were enough of a hardship, but when you sip on a mug of steaming hot chocolate as Christmas Eve 2021 descends upon us, consider this scenario, as described by Dr. Strange: One of the most terrifying dangers in ancient Palestine was the heavily forested valley of the Jordan River. Lions and bears lived in the woods, and travelers had to fend off wild boars. Archeologists have unearthed documents warning travelers of the forest’s dangers. Furthermore, Rev. Peter Vasko, a Catholic priest, adds, and, bandits, pirates of the desert and robbers were also common hazards along the major trade routes like the one Joseph and Mary would have traveled.
None of these details are disclosed in Luke 2:2-40. It’s surprising that Luke, a physician, did not even hint at the physical discomforts suffered by the young Mary and Joseph. Lions, bears, wild boars, bandits, and pirates didn’t even make it into his journaling. God, His glory, angels, and shepherds did, because that’s the Hope we have from Christmas. A good doctor always seeks to present hope to his patients!
So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger."
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:
"Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!"
So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, "Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us." And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them (Luke 2: 4-20 NKJV).
Webster’s Dictionary defines “ponder” as “to think or consider especially quietly, soberly, and deeply”. But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart, verse 19 says. I bet she did! Just her frighteningly dangerous, bumpy, lengthy, exhausting journey to Bethlehem was enough trauma to make her silent. Seeing a bear or wild boar on the trail ahead would stop even Grizzly Adams in his tracks, but imagine being nine months pregnant with such ferocious beasts lurking about on your trip to the hospital. Pirates?? Dr. Strange is correct—we have no idea how difficult it was.
And yet, although she surely thought of the hardships they endured in getting to a location to give birth, what overshadowed any evil and darkness of the journey was the Glory and Light of God that burst forth in the skies that Christmas Eve, over the place of Christ’s birth. It very likely could have been a cave, but one so illuminated with God’s light and so full of the exuberant voices of angelic beings that any hardships incurred quickly faded out of her sight and memory. Wow oh wow.
‘Twas the Night Before Christmas… Mary could have written her own version and blown Santa’s socks off, for she bore the greatest Gift of all time—Jesus Christ, Mighty Savior, Emmanuel, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Son of God! Merry Christmas, dear friends! Glory to God in the highest!